Monday 26 September 2016

John Drennan: Unknown unknowns of abortion

Published 23/12/2012 | 05:00

Fine Gael's battle lines are drawn over moral convictions in the party's own civil war.

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As the Dail broke for Christmas, the chill surrounding the Fine Gael benches was palpable. It was also understandable.

FG may have displayed plenty of equanimity as its Labour 'partners' lost two high-profile ministers (because of FG's own boorishness in office) and three relatively impressive TDs.

But suddenly the return of the spectre of the abortion issue has left Fine Gael facing the genuine possibility that it may see half a dozen of its own TDs losing the whip.

And, like Labour, the bloodletting may not be confined to mere backbenchers, for a real possibility exists that the high-profile Junior Minister Lucinda Creighton could find herself edging towards the departure lounge of the junior ministerial ranks.

Of course, the loss of Lucinda might cause the good ole Dukes of Hazzard-style boys such as Not So Cute Old Phil to grin and smirk.

They might have had some past difficulties when Lucinda aimed the political stiletto at Enda – but missed.

However, the sense is growing within FG , a party that is embarrassingly short of high-profile female ministers, that Lucinda is evolving into Enda's special project.

And were she to finally learn to love the 'Dear Leader', then Enda would be vindicated.

Lucinda, meanwhile, would be wise to remember that, whilst one might lose a bit of dignity from not resigning on a moral issue, politicians as diverse as Charlie Haughey and John Bruton have, on occasion, bent like the willow and after initial pain profited politically from the decision.

Ultimately the unease, particularly within FG, over the abortion problem, is informed by something more fundamental than the loss of a few TDs or the putative priestly slap.

Instead, the reason why the FG wing of this government is approaching abortion with the enthusiasm of someone deputised to defuse a very large bomb, is because of its status as a moral issue.

This means TDs and even ministers like Leo Varadkar must deal with 'unknown unknowns' such as personal conviction and private conscience.

And in a political system where freedom of thought attracts the same fearful wonder as the Aztecs felt when they saw Cortez on a horse, the fellowship of Leinster House lads do not know how to operate in such territories.

Ireland's centrist school of politics, where everyone within Labour, FG and FF are all essentially on the same side, was eloquently summarised by Bertie Ahern's view that you appointed your 'friends' to public office as a matter of course.

Such an ethos means the politician who puts his mind away in a dusty corner and votes in in the same way as his betters is more valued than the far more difficult Peter Mathews or Simon Harris, for example.

The problem for the lads with abortion is that it is not one that can be solved by the old politics, the nuzzling of a few TDs' ears in the Dail bar.

Abortion instead will expose our poor TDs to 'angels on-the-head-of-a-pin' style debates over whether we should have flying columns of doctors to ascertain if heavily pregnant women are suicidal or not.

And, whilst Labour heavy-weights such as Pat Rabbitte are perfectly constituted for such complexities, the 'Dear Leader' Enda must be wondering how on Earth will his patented technique of smiling, winking, nodding and waving at the people stand up to this.

The answer, Enda, of course, is that it won't and the trouble has already started over that dangerous issue known as the 'free vote'.

Seeing as it is hard enough for government ministers to respect their TDs, let alone their consciences, unsurprisingly there is a lack of comprehension at cabinet level over the difficulties this is posing for certain deputies.


But Enda and Eamon's Democratic Revolution is in a strange old place indeed when freedom of conscience for the modern Dail deputy is more circumscribed than the rights and privileges accorded to Liam Cosgrave's FG in 1974.

Sadly, the issue is a mere gentle prelude to the rows that will be generated by both sides in the coming months.

The tactics of the pro-life extremes are in full cry and are as attractive as those of any moral blackmailer.

Though more colourful, they are not unique, for 'liberal' Ireland is playing the same game in attempting to characterise those who wear the pro-life colours as being Quislings of Opus Dei who believe a woman's place is in De Valera's constitution.

The alternative point of attack is to paint TDs who oppose abortion as being rustic rednecks who do not have minds of their own and are bound hand and foot by clientelism of the basest type and who sink to their knees when the shadow of a priest passes by.

Fellows like James Bannon and his pro-life letter from Not So Cute Old Phil Hogan may make a good case for that dated vision of the world.

But when you dig down to the devilish detail of those in FG who continue to retain doubts, the argument does not stand up.

Are we to place that nice young Dublin South East TD Eoghan Murphy within the ranks of the fundamentalists when he calls for a free vote and notes properly that the moral force of any Bill on abortion will be weakened if it is one that is enforced by the whip?

Though Peter Mathews may like to carry rosary beads – and who would enter a FG party meeting without such protection – he hardly has the mark of the Knights upon him. We could go through a long list of other politicians who do not meet the criteria set out for those who dare to have concerns on abortion.

But no one would believe politicians such as the civilised Paul Bradford, John O'Mahony, John Paul Phelan, and Billy Timmins dream at night of fatwahs against fallen women?

And no one would include Fine Gael's turbulent Prince, John Deasy, or Michael Creed for that matter as being submissive servants of the church.

All this is bad enough. But the issue of abortion will also pose tough questions for our politicians over the virtues of a culture of individual rights versus a more hierarchical world view that prioritises family and community.

In the months ahead they will have to deal with warnings from the pro-life side that, with the best will in the world, legislating for suicide represents the foot in the door that will lead to the ultimate unrestricted provision of abortion.

The pro-choice wing, meanwhile, will say if an exception is made for suicide, then why not deal with all the other 'hard cases'.

This is not the sort of politics to enthuse most of the Grumpy Old habitues of the Dail Bar library who are far more interested in taking abortion out of politics than politics out of abortion.

In fairness, Brian Hayes did attempt to play Pollyanna last week as he noted it was "possible to be both pro-life and pro-choice".

It would, indeed, be nice if such a sanguine view of the world could prevail, but ultimately Labour's Michael Conaghan may have made the wisest comment of all when he noted the lads might have to trot back for another referendum to sort the entire debacle out.

Still, on the plus side, after we deal with abortion we can move on to what Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore claims to be "the civil rights issue of our generation".

Bet you just can't wait for that referendum on gay marriage, Enda! Because we're loving it already.

Sunday Independent

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